I spent my first year of college living in two places at once. The first was the top bunk in a small room with two sets of stacked beds and three other women I’d been randomly assigned as roommates. The other, a bit less literal, was the closet. I didn’t know I was gay yet, but I also didn’t not know I was gay. I knew that while my roommates came home on weekends with stories of hooking up with guys — or, on nights where our room felt even smaller, the hookups themselves — I didn’t. And I couldn’t yet fully articulate to myself, much less anybody else, why not. So I remained alone in both the closet and that goddamned bunk bed, where I kept up my high-school habit of watching Glee episodes over and over. It’s where I watched as Santana Lopez, played to perfection by Naya Rivera, poured her heart out to fellow Cheerio Brittany S. Pierce (Heather Morris) by singing “Songbird.”
In the season-two episode “Rumours,” the glee club, New Directions, is being plagued by, well, rumors. After Brittany effectively outs Santana on her talk show, Mr. Schue, never one for subtlety, has the group perform numbers from the Fleetwood Mac album of the same name. The pair, along with [checks notes] Gwyneth Paltrow, had performed “Landslide” earlier in the season, as part of the process of coming out to each other. (At that point, Santana was nowhere near ready, and Brittany was dating Artie.) Unlike their last foray into Fleetwood Mac, however, “Songbird” is a private performance, just for Brittany. Santana’s still not ready to tell the world about the full depth of her feelings; she’s struggling just to claim them for herself. It’s a familiar ache that weighs on my chest rewatching the scene even now.
The only other person in the room during the performance is Brad, the club’s ever-present accompanist. “He’s just furniture,” Santana, deliciously brusque even in romance, says when Brittany asks why he’s there. Santana was always poised to give a tongue lashing, ever wary of anybody who might hurt her or, in the case of Brittany, force Santana to be honest with herself. As the seasons progressed, we’d come to see this as a well-honed defense mechanism. (And for the viewers, a real treat to watch Rivera do her thing. If you’ve never watched a Santana insult supercut on YouTube, here’s a good one to start with.) “The only straight I am is straight-up bitch,” she says in one episode, which seems about as good a way to sum it up as any.
That perception of Santana as a straight-up bitch adds emotional heft to “Songbird,” which is the moment Santana tells Brittany, for the first time, that she is in love with her. The lyrics, “I love you, I love you, I love you like never before,” do the heavy lifting. It’s beautiful for so many reasons. Rivera’s smooth and raw vocals shine through in a rare and perfectly underproduced solo number. (A nice contrast to, say, “Valerie,” a likewise flawless performance, if one with a little more razzle and dazzle.) Also notable is the fact that Brittany and Santana aren’t wearing their cheerleading uniforms, unlike in earlier scenes in the season where we saw the pair, in matching pleated minis, make out in Brittany’s bed and talk about scissoring and Melissa Etheridge. (The movie But I’m a Cheerleader gave the queer community the phrase “root,” a term sometimes used by LGBTQ+ people to identify the moment they realized they weren’t straight, but it also gave the world fuel for unending stereotypes about sapphic pom-pom wavers.) By contrast, the “Songbird” performance doesn’t feel gaze-y or even intentionally trope-y. It’s just a woman trying, despite all her fears, to tell another woman that she loves her.
Later on in the episode, Santana still isn’t ready to come out to a world beyond Brittany. She promises to appear and subsequently bails on Brittany’s talk show and instead doubles down on claiming to be in love with another guy at school. (He’s also a closet case.) At the time, I filed the episode away in my brain. It was comforting. Here was a woman in love with her best friend. She was certain that it was capital-R Romantic love, positive it wasn’t a whim, absolutely sure that the friend felt the same way about her. And even with all that, she still wasn’t ready. My own hurdles in coming out weren’t set anywhere near as high as Santana’s, but, still, I think I saw a little bit of myself in that episode. If not coming out to everyone didn’t make Santana any less queer, it didn’t make me any less queer, either. If I even was queer, which I still hadn’t decided, much less accepted that it wasn’t really a decision at all.
A few years later, I found someone who made all the love songs in the world make sense. We met, naturally, in a coed a cappella group that bore a not-insignificant resemblance to New Directions; the posters to audition were stylized like the Glee logo, with a finger and a thumb forming the Ls. She was a loud soprano, and I insisted I simply could not stand to be around her, until I realized what I actually wanted was to spend every waking minute of my day in her presence and memorize everything there was to know about her. For my birthday that year, she burned me a playlist. “Songbird” was on it. I hadn’t heard it since watching that Glee episode, and hearing it again made me reach into my brain, followed by Google, to figure out where I’d heard it before. (Glee and, as it turned out, that very sad scene in Love, Actually where Laura Linney forgoes a night with her office crush to care for her mentally ill brother.) It’s been almost eight years since then, and neither the relationship nor the CD stood the test of time. I genuinely don’t remember for certain if it was the original Fleetwood Mac version or the Glee cover of the song — though I believe it was the latter — but it doesn’t really matter. I know she knew exactly what she was doing by choosing “Songbird” — what reference she was making, what she was saying, and who she was echoing.
Naya Rivera as Santana Lopez gave a generation of queer people a role model. That sounds so serious and stodgy — “a role model for a generation” — for a character whose lines in any given episode included from one to 27 instances of her verbally dressing down any person who dared get in her way or under her skin. But that’s why she mattered so much. She was human. She fucked up. She was just as much gay icon when she was in the closet as she was when she was out of it. She made it okay to know that you were queer but also know that you were frustrated and scared and angry and, sometimes, hopeful about being queer. She loved deeply and openly and grew, all of which is a testament to the gentle care and energy Rivera put into playing her. She existed on mainstream television in a time where looking for queer women on television yielded incredibly limited results. That was more than enough. She was, well, like never before.